The Nation as Unit of Analysis

Don Boudreaux in the course of a nice post on Jane Jacobs' anti-nationalism quotes her thusly:

Nations are political and military entities, and so are blocs of nations. But it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that they are also the basic, salient entities of economic life or that they are particularly useful for probing the mysteries of economic structure, the reasons for the rise and decline of wealth.

This is right. But it's complicated, isn't it? The more economically open a nation's institutions are, the less significant is the nation as a unit of analysis. That is, once the political entity gets its institutions right, the economic entity becomes absorbed in a much larger economic network. When the institutions are all wrong, the nation gets cut off from the larger network. The circumstances in which it really makes sense to take the nation as the unit of analysis are those in which the nation is pathological. Sort of like, you don't pay that much attention to your liver until you get cirrhosis.

Political philosophy suffers from a paralell error. Normative mercantilism? The nation-state does require normative justification. But it is not therefore the primary or largest unit of social interaction demanding normative consideration. I think we've been retarded philosophically be the overemphasis on the nation. I'm certainly not sure how to reformulate the main questions of political-social philosophy for a super-nationalist context. So start thinking!

Zombie Reforms, Zombie Arguments

In the Washington Post's account of the resuscitation of Social Security reform in the president's budget proposal, Allan Sloan writes, of progressive indexing:

This means that although progressive indexing is an attractive idea from a social-justice point of view, it would reduce Social Security's political support by making it seem more like welfare than an earned benefit.

Matt Y. characterizes Social Security reform as a zombie that won't (really truly) die. Sure. But how about Sloan's undead item of liberal faith about political support, which keeps rearing its dessicated head despite the lack of any good argument.

As far as I can tell, there is little to no evidence that converting social security to a means-tested benefits program would reduce political support for it. It is true that former Social Security administrator Wilbur Cohen’s assertion that a program for the poor will be a poor program is repeated endlessly. But truth is not established by repetition. Unemployment and disability insurance, unlike Social Security retirement benefits, kick in only in conditions of necessity. Nevertheless, or perhaps due to that fact, they are very politically popular, well-funded, and face no apparent political threat of reduction.

Indeed, there is compelling evidence that means-tested retirement benefits would be too generous creating a perverse incentive for workers to save too little in order to qualify for a beefy means-tested benefit.

Xavier Sala-i-Martin and Casey Mulligan have written a fascinating account of the political economy of “gerontocracy” or rule by the old. Their key point is that during their working years, workers have fractured political interests. Teachers plump for teacher’s unions. Manufacturers lobby for price-supports. Investors fight for lower capital gains taxes. Etc. Many of these interests cancel each other out. In any case, there is no unified front. However, when people retire from their particular occupations, they leave behind a narrow sectional interest and move into a much broader interest group, retirees, who have highly unified interests, and, moreover, very low opportunity costs to political participation.

The demographic problem of social security is precisely that a very large portion of the population is soon to make the transition into this group. There is every reason to believe that retirees would lobby for big retirement benefits, and there would be no other political interest as large and unified to keep them from getting them. One of the chief economic reasons for mandatory retirement savings accounts is to guard against this much more likely contingency. (More likely than too little political support, that is.) If workers are required to save for retirement in protected accounts, they will not be able to prematurely consume their savings in order to qualify for predictably over-generous means-tested retirement benefits.

I agree that progressive indexing is attractive in terms of distribution. But since there is little reason to believe that a more means sensitive program will lack political support, why not just go all the way to a progressively designed means-tested program for the poor elderly complemented by mandatory personal retirement accounts to buffer against moral hazard?

This is, I agree, not a particularly libertarian proposal. But I think it is the best feasible option from almost every perspective with an interest in feasibility. For the life of me, I still can't figure out how a liberal could possibly prefer the status quo over a cushy retirement safety net plus mandatory accounts.

My prediction is that nominal liberals actually won't be able to hold out that long against the overwhelming liberal sensibleness of this, and so if Republicans can't get the job done, Democrats will soon enough.

Happiness and Liberal Institutions: Why I'm Doing What I'm Doing

Another truly useful thing about Haybron's paper is the totally stunning clarity with which he commits the Fallacy of Asymmetric Idealization. The Fallacy of Asymmetric Idealization is the fallacy of unfavorably contrasting a realistically (or pessimistically) described process or institution with an idealizistically desicribed process or institution. The fallacy was first made explicit to me by Steve Horwitz at an IHS conference. He drew a matrix on the board that looked something like this:

Market Instutions Government Institutions
Ideal X
Non-ideal X

The distribution of the Xs here shows how libertarians tend to commit the fallacy. Big government folk tend to go for a grim non-ideal market and a Panglossian government.

Almost the entirety of what I've been calling the “cognitive paternalism” literature amounts to an elaborate form of this version of the fallacy:

Human cognition Government policymaking
Ideal
X
Non-ideal X

It would not be a fallacy if it was shown that institutions of government decisionmaking are in general more means-ends reliable than individual decisionmaking in the setting on non-government institutions. But no one ever does try to make that argument. I suspect that there is no good argument for it. The argument would need to be of this general form:

If genuine experts were in charge of the policymaking process, then they could write enforceable policy that would tend to improve the means-ends rationality of individual behavior.

The difficulties are legion. Let's just concentrate on experts. The expert identification process is itself an institutional problem that is very hard to solve. There is no broad consensus among citizens as to who is an expert. Consider that Leon Kass was designated by the Bush adminstration as an expert in bioethics to make recommendations on government policy. We have Kass, among others, to thank for the president's (I think deeply mistaken) opposition to cloning, stem-cell research, and, yes, human-animal hybrids! Is Kass a genuine expert of not? Was the Bush adminstration means-ends reliable when it appointed Donald Rumsfeld to run the DoD? It depends on who you ask. Maybe a majority of American's say “yes.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but we clearly don't even agree about the ends that we ought to be means-ends rational about. Philosophers and religious leaders and politicians are forever nominating themselves as experts about truly good ends. And, of course, as experts about who the experts about truly good ends are.

Well, you see the problem. We always have to keep in mind the possibility that if some domain of life is turned over to rule by experts, we may get the wrong experts. Imagine James Dobson as the czar of American family policy, empowered to structure incentives to lovingly guide us to behave according to his expert conception of healthy, fulfilling, truly good family life. The Rawlsian fact of pluralism is a real fact, and it doesn't just disappear because you are a scientist, or because you are really right. James Dobson, and the millions whe love him, knows he's really right, too. Ask Peter Singer. What does he think?

That said, here is Haybron:

Consider that a deep faith in the ability of individuals effectively to seek their own good has provided an important justification for liberal restrictions on the state’s role in promoting good lives. This strain of thought finds its classic expression in Mill’s On Liberty, where he writes that “the strongest of all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct, is that when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place” (Mill 1991). Recall also the lines cited at the start of this paper. In essence, Mill argues that individuals tend to know how they are doing, and what’s good for them, far better than anyone else does, and so societies should let individuals make their own decisions about how to live. Give people as much freedom to live as they wish, with as much scope for shaping their lives as they see fit, as possible.

And yet, if individuals are prone systematically to botch choices regarding their happiness, or even if this must be considered a serious possibility, then this aspect of liberal thought loses a good deal of its support, specifically the traditional consequentialist arguments like Mill’s that favor it. We cannot simply assume a high level of prudential competence in the typical person. Nor can we assume, contra Mill, that governments won’t often know better than individuals what’s best for them, since some of our prudential shortcomings appear to be systematic. Thus policymakers armed with knowledge of human psychological weaknesses might be able to shape social arrangements to compensate for them, in ways that will not always sit well with liberal sensibilities. One might object here that, as Mill claimed, individuals still tend to know their own affects better than anyone else does. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that most people mistakenly think themselves happy. Even if they are the best judges of their specific feelings, it may be that well-informed officials have a better grip on how the population feels, in general, than the individuals taken in aggregate do. So, for instance, state officials might know that the average person isn’t happy, while the average person mistakenly believes herself happy.

Plainly, much more would need to be said actually to undermine consequentialist arguments for liberal strictures on state paternalism. Nor would the weakening or defeat of those arguments open the door for rampant government paternalism, since we could in any event have powerful reasons of autonomy for limiting state interventions in our lives. My purpose here is just to show how AI [affective ignorance] and related psychological matters could impact political thought: we may find, perhaps among other things, that we need to rethink common doubts about the efficacy of state paternalism in making people happier. [emphasis added]

The first emphasized passage is a truly remarkable example of the Fallacy of Asymmetric Idealization. Here is my paraphrase: we can't assume that individuals know what's best for them, and so we can't assume that other individuals, with the same psychological limits, embedded in an incredibly fragile and and improbable structure of institutions, constituted by the patterns of interaction among millions of other individuals similarly psychologically limited, won't do better!

That's right! We can't just assume that! But once we correct for the fallacy and make our levels of (non-)idealization symmetrical, we are more than justified in believing that the government, on average, isn't likely to help more than it hurts.

Anyone who has studied economic development will come to suspect that the fraility of human rationality and trust is at the root of most societies' inabilitity to develop minimally adequate institutions manned with “policymakers” armed with anything but a well-honed predatory instinct. Simply assuming policymakers “armed with knowledge of human psychological weaknesses” that enable them to “shape social arrangements to compensate” for those weakness right after being so thoroughly non-idealistic about human psychology ought to strike us as an embarrassing mistake. This is just like simply assuming perfect human rationality. Goverment is a solution to other problems only if the problem of good government has already been solved (or is even solvable). There is no deus ex machina. There is, of course, a gigantic literature about the quality of government institutions through time. The vast majority of all government institutions and policies ever tried have a record of simply astounding means-ends failure.

When individual prudence breaks down we marry the wrong person, take the wrong job, decide to take the wrong drug, work too much, or vacation too little, etc. And that's too bad. But it is simple impossible to avoid the truth that government policy is set by the same kind of individual human beings who act on predictions about what is going to make us all better off. There is never a guarantee that these people know what they are doing. There probably cannot be a guarantee. All we can do is mitigate the possibility for harm by keeping power away from deeply imperfect people. When government institutions go sour the people running them start unjust wars, slaughter their own citizens by the millions, systematically oppress their own people, keep them in squalor generation after generation, or starve them by the droves. This is, one must admit, rather worse than the anxiety and dismay of an individual who has made some mistakes about her own happiness.

There are, of course, some notable successes in government. It is of course possible for there to be genuine experts, and for government appointed genuine experts to do a good job. We will miss you Alan Greenspan! But, then again, some people aren't systematically means-ends irrational, either. In the best case, individuals don't need a government crutch to help them do the right thing. And in the best case, government crutches can help. But our world isn't the best case. Often the best we can do is put up and defend strong barriers against the worst case. My worry is that the cognitive paternalists are unwittingly eroding those barriers.

Paper of the Day: Do We Know How Happy We Are?

Another great thing about chatting with Carl the other day is the pointer he gave me to the work of Dan Haybron, a philosopher at St. Louis University. Dan has written a couple of the papers that I've been trying in vain to find. His web page is a treasure trove. His paper Do We Know How Happy We Are: One Some Limits of Affective Introspection and Recall makes the skeptical case I have been trying to make, based on the same research I have been looking at, much better than I have so far been able to make it. I'm delighted to see this paper in part because it helps me know that I'm not crazy.

ABSTRACT. This paper aims to show that widespread, serious errors in the self-assessment of affect are a genuine possibility—one worth taking very seriously. For we are subject to a variety of errors concerning the character of our present and past affective states, or “affective ignorance.” For example, some affects, particularly moods, can greatly affect the quality of our experience even when we are wholly unaware of them. I note several implications of these arguments. First, we may be less competent pursuers of happiness than is commonly believed, raising difficult questions for political thought. Second, some of the errors discussed ramify for our understanding of consciousness, including Ned Block’s controversial distinction between access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness. Third, empirical results based on self-reports about affect may be systematically misleading in certain ways.

The abstract doesn't really capture the core of what I'm interested in here, which is the reliability of self-report survey instruments. The paper contains a very trenchant and cogent critique.

Now, I've been arguing that the happiness surveys fail to measure increases in average objective happiness. I suppose it reveals my priors to admit that it really hadn't seriously occurred to me that they could be failing to measure decreases. Haybron seems to think this is a distinct possibility.

Here is a Haybron's conclusion:

There is a family I know—I will call them the Wilsons—whose members are quite amazingly loud. Wonderful people they are, but the din from their constant shouting, thumping, and crashing about is, for the unseasoned visitor, almost unbearable. Yet they seem to have no idea there’s anything at all unpleasant or odd about it, since it is perfectly normal for them. Those who know them see it differently: however hardened their sensibilities might have become, it’s almost certainly an unpleasant place for the family too. (It must be.) It is worth pondering whether mainstream American society might not be a little like the Wilsons: oblivious, and more or less inured to, a noisy, obnoxious, stressful, and spiritually deflating way of life.

Of course,Haybron's priors are revealed in the fact that he doesn't seem to have considered that we might be rather better off than we think. This kind of dispute brings home, I think, the need for a long-term longitudinal physical correlates of happiness study. My guess is that some correlates of unhappiness (stress/cortisol levels, e.g., ) may have gone up, but that some correlates of happiness (some kinds of dopiminergic activity, e.g.) may have also gone up. The multi-dimensional physical constitution of real happiness will complicate efforts to show unambiguous increases or declines, especially since there may be no generally valid way to weigh the disutility of cortisol against the utility of dopamine, or whatever, in terms of real happiness.

[Cross-posted from Happiness and Public Policy.]

What Are Philosophers Good For?

Here are a few thoughts about what I've learned from interdisciplinary research.

The more interdisciplinary investigation I do, the clearer it becomes that different disciplines have quite different standards for evidence and argument. Some very traditional analytical philosophy papers on happiness (or whatever) are next to useless, so thoughtless are they, despite their impressive dialectical rigor, in the assumption that philosophers' intuitions about the meanings of words, or about our judgments in counterfactual cases, is any kind of reliable guide to truth. Thankfully, this is dying in philosophy. Economists are exceedingly careful about their formalisms, but exceedingly careless about what their formalisms are supposed to be about. Psychologists are (well some of them) very careful about experimental design, on one level. But they are often stunningly naive about the interpretation of the data they have gathered. It is perhaps my own disciplinary prejudice, and perhaps I am being self-serving, but I find that the most enlightening work is often by analytically trained philosophers who are skeptical of traditional analytical methods, and apply their diaectical and analytic skills to the interpretation of scientific results. I'm thinking of philosophers like Daniel Dennett, Stephen Stich, the Churchlands, Kim Sterelny, Paul Griffiths, Andy Clark, Jesse Prinz, David Buller, J.D. Trout, etc. There are a bunch of philosophers of biology and physics that one could add here, but they don't leap to my mind, since those aren't my areas. But I think it's worth pointing out that philosophy and philosophical training really are good for the advancement of real knowledge. And I think we're going see more and more philosophers, armed with a kind of conceptual training that scientists do not normally get, making the transition into primary empirical research, and making major contributions. Here for example is a paper of U of Maryland philosophy professor Chris Cherniak. Where did the “philosophy” go? Who cares!

I think we see similar value-adds from other disciplinary fusions. Economists like Kevin McCabe who have moved into neuroscience are making real contributions to neuroscience as well as economics. It is getting increasingly difficult to tell the difference between some forms of political science and economics. This kind of convergence is very, very good. Despite the stupid institutional impediments caused by the departmental structure of universities, we're on a track to see the resurgence of the old fashioned “moral sciences.” It is getting and harder harder to tell the difference between philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, economics, political science, and the worthwhile branches of anthropology and sociology. There is considerable value in disciplinary differences in the precise way questions are tackled. But there is even greater value in the fact that all these disciplines are increasingly tackling overlapping sets of questions with increasingly compatible intellectual tools.

How to Objectively Measure Subjective Feelings

I just got off the phone with Carl Craver, a smart philosopher of neuroscience (yes, redundant) at Wash U in St. Louis. I had some vague ideas about brains and happiness and I wanted to talk to somebody who not only understands brains, but philosophy of science, and so forth. In trying to formulate one of my vague ideas to Carl, I think I semi-successfully clarified something worthwhile to myself. It's not what I was trying to clarify, but I'll take it! Thanks, Carl!

So . . . here's a datum that needs explaining:

Self-reported happiness is stable over the past 50 years–the percentages of the population reporting themselves in each category has not shifted significantly.

Here are two hypotheses that account for this fact:

(1) Adaptation, aspiration, and/or social comparison affect the real qualitative feel of subjective states, such that the way people feel now (in the various categories in the distribution) is essentially the same as the way people felt fifty years ago.

(2) Adaptation, aspiration, and/or social comparison affect the way people report
the way they feel, such that the percentages of people who say they feel “very happy,” etc. remain pretty constant, although the real qualitative feel of their subjective states now (in the various categories in the distribution) is not essentially the same as it was fifty years ago. More people are in fact happier now, but the reporting mechanisms keep moving the goal posts.

My gut says strongly that (2) is correct. This is not to say that adaptation, etc. do not at all affect the real quality of our subjective states. I think they do. But not enough to have kept the real quality of happiness totally static over time. (Also, it might turn out that, say, adaptation is a real effect, while social comparison is a reporting effect or vice versa. But I don't want to get too complicated just now.)

How do you test this? Well, is it really that hard? There is ample reason to believe that self-reports contain real information. However, I suspect that the information they do contain is not not very usefully comparable across time and/or place. Nonetheless, we can say with a high level of certainty—due to various kinds of self-report (there is no other way)—that certain hormones and neurotransmitters, etc. correlate with feeling good, and others correlate with feeling bad. Seratonin, dopamine, oxytocin: good. Cortisol, etc.: bad. Same with certain distinctive patterns of neural activation. My friend Paul Zak takes blood samples and measures oxytocin levels to see how trusting people are. (He doesn't use self-reports, but real performance in economic games containing an assurance problem. It should also be noted gratuitously that Paul is one of Wired's 10 Sexiest Geeks for 2005.) It should in principle be possible to measure the quantity of particular substances in people's system, or the activity levels of certain parts of the brain (generally involving a number of these substances) as a proxy for the way people really feel, as opposed to the way they say they feel.

So here's the idea: Get a good sized random sample of people in a particular society (or several societies). Measure their happiness-relevant vitals again and again over time—say, twenty years—and see what you get.

My predictions:

(a) There are multiple bases for good and bad self-reports. For example, some “very happy” people may have very consistently low cortisol levels. (Buddhist happy.) Some “very happy” people have very high status-related seratonin and testosterone levels, with a moderately high amount of cortisol. (Big honcho happy.)

(b) Many of the variables that predict high self-reports, such as income, autonomy, sociality, etc., will be shown to correlate with slightly different physical bases of good feelings. Some variables will be more seratonin related. Some variables will be more oxytocin related. Etc.

(c) The composition of the physical basis of high self-reports changes as we age.

(d) Over time, we will see shifting of the distribution of different kinds of happiness (e.g., Buddhist happiness vs. big honcho happiness) within the self-report categories due to changes in cultural, social and economic institutions.

and, finally,

(e) in year twenty (assuming social stability and a continuation of the general trend in economic growth) the percentage of the population having the physical profile(s) that predicted “very happy” in year one will have increased significantly, but the self-reports will not reflect this change.

There's probably already good evidence for (a)-(c). But let's really find out.

My intutions here were heavily primed by reading Fogel's The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100. Fogel advances a very physical conception of economic productivity in terms of calories consumed and calories spent. I was astonished to see the huge spike in economic productivity with the discovery of the germ theory of disease and the advent of adequate sanitation. Prior to this, almost everyone had some kind of infection almost all the time, and a big portion of the calorie budget went into fighting infection, and not productive labor. If you're not constantly sick, you have more energy and can work harder longer.

The thing that struck me is that people who were sick all the time cannot have really felt all that well. But people who were sick all the time wouldn't have a good idea of what it meant to feel not sick all the time, either. That's just the way things were. And I suspect that had folks in 1880 or whenever answered happiness surveys, they'd mostly say they were doing pretty good, like now. I bet you'd see a upward shift in the self-reports with good public health measures. But I highly doubt the shift would really correspond to the real change in what it felt like on the inside to move from really high to pretty low rates of infection. (I'd like to know the physical correlates for the lousy feelings of bacterial and viral infection. Couldn't we measure those, too?)

So, there's a research program for the taking! If you're a super-rich patron looking to make a big contribution to the science of human well-being, well, you know how to reach me!

[Cross-posted from Happiness and Public Policy.]